Born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, on May 10, 1963, Suzan-Lori Parks was encouraged by author James Baldwin to become a playwright, later penning award-winning works like Venus. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—becoming the first female African-American writer to do so—in 2002, for Topdog/Underdog. A novelist and screenwriter as well, Parks has also helmed the innovative 365 Days/365 Plays and a re-launch of Porgy and Bess.
Background and Education
Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, on May 10, 1963, to Francis McMillan and Donald Parks. With her father being an army officer, the family moved around quite a bit, with the young Parks living in Germany for a time. She was a lover of music and stories, including myths of goddesses and gods, and despite initially being discouraged from pursuing writing by a teacher, she followed what spoke to her.
Parks eventually attended Mount Holyoke College, from which she graduated Phi Betta Kappa in 1985. During undergrad she took a workshop run by writer James Baldwin, who lauded Parks for her abilities and suggested that she become a playwright upon observing her perform characters as she read her stories. Thereafter she took acting classes in London at the Drama Studio to better understand the overall craft of stage work.
First Wave of Plays
Parks's first produced play, 1987's Betting on the Dust Commander, had a run at the Gas Station bar in New York City. More work followed, including the Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), for which Parks won an Obie Award, and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1992). She won another Obie for the production of Venus (1996), staged at the Public Theater with artistic director George C. Wolfe and which dramatized the story of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman whose body was the center of a side show spectacle. Next followed the Scarlet Letter-inspired In the Blood (1999), to be joined years later by Fucking A (2003), another spin on the Nathaniel Hawthorne work with S. Epatha Merkerson as Hester.
Parks made history with her play Topdog/Underdog, about two brothers—one who plays Abraham Lincoln and another who plays the president's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in an arcade setting. Initially staged at the Public in 2001, the work made its way to Broadway's Ambassador Theater, starring Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright. An acclaimed production that was nominated for a Tony Award, Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—making her the first female African-American writer to do so—in 2002. She had also received the MacArthur "Genius Grant" Award the same year as Topdog's Public debut.
In 2003, Parks published her first novel, Getting Mother's Body, a propulsive, humorous story about a quest for buried jewels in the South.
Screenwriting for Oprah
Suzan-Lori Parks had ventured into screenwriting territory as well, penning the script for Spike Lee's 1996 film Girl 6 and later working on Oprah Winfrey's TV adaptation of the Zora Neale Hurston novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), starring Halle Berry.
Parks's additional stage output has included a musical about Ray Charles and the 2006 venture 365 Days/365 Plays, where she had written a play every day for a year and then pushed to stage the works in venues across the globe for free. In 2011 she was part of the team that launched a new version of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which won a Tony in the category of musical revival. 2014 saw the premiere of her play Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).
Parks, who wed bluesman Paul Oscher, is also a well-known lecturer and teacher, with a style that encourages connection and exploration of ideas.
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